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(Editors’ Note: The introduction to the series on #everydaysexualviolence is here. It contains a detailed trigger warning.)
There are stories girls never tell. We hold them, quietly, until they form a carapace that we carry around with us, invisible, but thick and heavy. I, for example, never told my parents when a boy threatened to rape me in a schoolyard. I was nine. My friends and I never talked about the incessant daily street harassment that we dealt with, from coarse adult men who commented, made sexualized demands and often grabbed us. I didn’t say a word about a flasher who sat on a wall near my grandmother’s house, almost everyday, pants unzipped, penis exposed. Or about cars that followed slowly, men barking and calling, as I walked home. When a boy in school who “liked” me came up behind me and tightly wrapped his arm around my neck, until I started to black out, I ignored him and finished class as though nothing had happened. Everyone watched and no one said a word or made any effort to intervene. When I went to a friend’s house and his mother appeared with bright bruises on her face we simply went to a different house to play. When I stopped visiting certain members of my family by myself, I never explained it was because of a well-honed sense that the predatory behavior of certain men would never be questioned or challenged.
These events were seamless parts of growing up, normal because they were unremarkable, in the technical way, un-remarked upon. They were the wallpaper of life and similar realities remains so for millions of girls around the world. No one said a word. Ever.
The casual and pervasive harm wasn’t the problem; talking about it was. The silence that surrounded these daily, small violences implied that the low-grade aggression, the persistent expressions of public dominance, and the threat of real danger were somehow benign.
We didn’t tell these stories, not because we couldn’t, but because it was clear that we shouldn’t. Otherwise, everyone would have been doing it. We still live in a world where for women the transgression isn’t silence, but speech.
As a quiet and observant child it was evident to me that other girls and women were having similar experiences, that boys and men were witness and participants in these events. I could see women being harassed in streets and no one confronting the harassers. Every day, the boy who so bluntly threatened me came to school, sat in class, and “teased” me. The police walked by the exposed man with nary a word. My classmates tittered uncomfortably at the strangler, observing that he was just acting out because I he “like me” and wasn’t interested. What happened between my friend’s parents was no one’s business. When my family thought I’d developed a “bad attitude” I just walked away. Better to have that reputation than incur the possible costs and the certainty of another.
There were boys subjected to sexualized ridicule, abuse and harassment, but to admit to that was an even bigger risk for many. Rampant homophobia, almost always targeted at boys and men perceived to be “feminized” was expressed openly, and was just another dimension of the same phenomena. The silence surrounding this violence was similarly profound. The weakness that an admission of vulnerability or fear implies is not only one that stays with some men their entire lives, but it can also contort their expression of masculinity into a hyper-display of machismo and “real” man-ness.
Any fear or anger I experienced, at the moment of any particular episode, usually dissipated in a flash. However, in truth, what it did was wrap itself up tightly in a psychic notch, every time. The degree to which I became hyper-vigilant was not apparent to me until years later. In truth, women everywhere live with a heightened awareness that we don’t acknowledge, but that takes a toll nonetheless. This vigilance was and still is, actually, a useful adaptive, survival strategy.
It wasn’t until I began writing and speaking publicly about these and related topics that I realized how common my childhood experiences, and experiences far worse, are for so many. I frequently get poignant messages from readers. The most arresting are from women, sometimes from teenagers but just often from women in their fifties, sixties or seventies, who start their emails by saying, “I never told anyone, but…
My brother’s friends raped me one day in my house when I was twelve…
I was walking home from school when I was 15 and three men attacked me in a field…
At a party one night, I was sure I was in danger, so I climbed out of a bathroom window…
An ex-boyfriend came into my dorm room, pushed me down on the bed and refused to leave…
My cousin used to climb into my bed….
The older boys in school would only let me pass through the door if I kissed them…
We don’t tell these stories because, until relatively recently, no one asked.
The normalization of gendered violence is inevitable when it is smothered in silence and when stigma is attached not to perpetrators of abuse, but to those they target. It’s enabling and myth-building. It means that when women, having adapted to experiences like this over their lifetimes, do or say anything, a common response is to minimize or mock them because what they are saying seems rare and unlikely, and, because there are no visible scars, a gendered criterion for discussion another day, it doesn’t seem “real.”
“Why do you want me to drop you off at the door, it would be easier if I could just drop you off at the intersection, you are so lazy.”
“Slow down! It’s not a race!”
“Its so dumb that women always go to the bathroom together! What is with you?”
“Signing up for a gym? You’re just spoiled.”
Taking cabs is “an unnecessary expense.”
“Kiss your uncle, don’t be rude!”
“Don’t be silly, it’s not a big deal. He just likes you.”
The silence is social sanction for the behavior that, ultimately, causes a deep and abiding cognitive dissonance in girls who all come to a point of having to manage clearly competing ideas about their worth, safety, bodily autonomy and status in the world. Going from being children to being women means we have to continuously recalibrate our understanding of the world. The slow accretion of these events challenge so much that we are taught about equality as children. It means internalizing the fact that how you look makes you unsafe. That to “stay safe” it is better not to think of your body as yours at all Some girls, seeking to make sense of the world around them, turn in on themselves. Then that act becomes normal and masked in silence and shame, too. Some girls get “sad,” they start cutting, they starve themselves, or engage in other high risk behaviors. People ask why? It’s not that complicated if you care to see the world through the eyes of little girls.
Instead we culturally and socially, politically and religiously, opt for willful blindness.
Colm O’Gorman, the head of Amnesty International in Ireland, and a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a priest, decribes his experience this way, “For so long, everyone pretended these things weren’t happening. So sad. So ridiculous. If we acknowledge these things we can address them. But for years, everyone knew, and no one knew. You just couldn’t say anything.” In other words, it was normal.
There is so much more we have to talk about before violence against girls and women isn’t “life.”
Soraya Chemaly is a feminist writer, media critic and activist whose work focuses on women’s rights and the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. She is a regular contributor to Salon, The Huffington Post, RHRealityCheck, Fem2.0, Role Reboot, The Feminist Wire and other online media. Her writing also appears in The Guardian, Ms. Magazine and CNN. She is a frequent radio and online commentator with Al-Jazeera, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, Voice of Russia and has appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Most recently, Ms. Chemaly was one of the primary organizers of a successful social media campaign demanding that Facebook recognize misogynistic content as hate speech.